The Easter Season is here, complete with baskets and cellophane grass and chocolate bunnies in every store. While we enjoy the chocolate bunnies and malted eggs, it’s pretty obvious that cellophane grass has absolutely nothing to do with the Resurrection of our Lord. This time of year brings with it the annual uncomfortable question; what should we – as Christians – celebrate?
The term "Easter" itself alludes to the pagan roots of the holiday. The name comes from the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar (also, Astarte). It was the pagan preoccupation with fertility that linked rabbits’ rapid breeding with the golden egg of Astarte. Passover, and therefore the Resurrection of Jesus, occur in the springtime. As Christianity spread, the celebration that Christ had conquered death came neatly at a time when the pagan world was celebrating the renewal of nature after the death of winter. And so, today we have Easter egg hunts at churches across America on Resurrection Sunday.
Is that good? Should we, as Christians, allow remnants of pagan celebrations into our celebration of Christ? For those who understand that Easter’s fuzzy bunnies are really the residue of ancient Babylonian fertility religions, there seems to be two choices.
1. Reject Easter Traditions: Some Christians separate themselves from the remnants of those old fertility religions. They remember Christ’s Resurrection and forgo all the chocolate and hard boiled eggs. They may even celebrate Passover, and Jesus as the Passover Lamb. They rejoice that he was raised again as the Firstborn from the dead (Col 1:18) on Sunday, the Feast of Firstfruits.
2: Make Use Of Easter Traditions: Some Christians, on the other hand, see the Easter traditions as another opportunity to spread the Gospel and use the eggs as teaching tools. Some take 12 plastic eggs, for example, and fill each one with one object from the story of Jesus’ betrayal and death and his raising from the dead. The eggs contain things like coins, a sponge, nails, and a cross while the last one is empty, representing the empty tomb. Other people dye eggs, using each color to symbolize a different aspect of Christ’s death and resurrection (red stands for his blood, etc). There are dozens of ways that Sunday School teachers and parents have incorporated the current Easter traditions into the celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
Which is the better way?
We do not face this issue only at Easter. Most Christian holidays have leftover pagan traditions mixed into their celebrations. Do we stop giving out Valentines because boys and girls paired up for the (loosely connected) Roman festival of Lupercalia? Do we stop hanging mistletoe because it was once a part of fertility rights – or throw out Christmas altogether because the Romans celebrated Saturnalia in late December? Are those things unholy because they were once connected to paganism? Or can we use them as opportunities to spread the Gospel to our secular culture? How do we deal with these things according to the Word of God?
To The Jews First:
God gave Israel a law and a sacrificial system that would help them understand how the death of the Messiah could pay for sins. He gave them the Passover so they could understand that the blood of the Lamb would protect them from the wrath of God. God gave Israel feasts that stood as prophetic symbols, as types, of His plan for redemption. The Jews were primed to understand the purpose and mission of the Messiah, and while the eyes of many were blinded for a time, Jesus clearly stated that he came to the lost sheep of the House of Israel (Matt. 15:24).
Yet, Jesus came to save the whole world. The Gospel was for the Jews first, but also for the Gentiles according to the Scriptures (Isaiah 49:6, Acts 10:45, Rom. 1:16). The purpose of Israel was to be a light that shined the truth of God to all peoples.
And Also to the Gentiles:
When evangelists in the Early Church went out to preach to the world, though, the pagan nations did not have the same background that the Jews had. They had sacrificial systems as well, but without the precious subtleties provided by the Law. They did not have the same feasts and laws to give them a cultural understanding of the messages they were being given. The missionaries had to find ways within the existing pagan cultures to help the gentiles appreciate who Jesus was. St. Patrick in Ireland was not alone. Many early Church evangelists incorporated Christian teachings into existing celebrations, "Christianizing" those traditions.
Whether that was a good or bad thing has long been the subject of debate. Some argue that those celebrations are not in the Bible and that mixing Christian beliefs with pagan traditions is at best distracting and is at worst a form of bowing the knee to those false gods.
"Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you," (2 Cor. 6:17)
Others argue that Christianity has sanctified those celebrations, making the unholy holy.
"Unto the pure all things are pure:" (Titus 1:15)
Paul and Plato:
The Apostle Paul, sent by God to minister to the gentiles, believed in making the most of every opportunity (1 Cor. 9:18-23). Paul is famous for his use of Greek culture to get ideas across to his Greek audience. He constantly makes allusions to Plato with statements like, "…which are a shadow of things to come," (Col. 2:17) and "For now we see through a glass, darkly," (1 Cor. 13:10). Do Paul’s frequent allusions to Plato indicate that Plato himself was inspired by God? No. Rather, Paul made use of Plato because his Greek audience understood Plato, and he could use Plato’s ideas as tools to help gentile minds understand the truth about our lives in Jesus Christ.
Was he right to do this? Didn’t he run the risk of making people think he was legitimizing the many unbiblical ideas Plato had? That’s a good question.
Yet, Jesus appears to have done the exact same thing. Jesus makes a puzzling statement in Acts when he knocks Paul (still "Saul" at that time) off his donkey on the road to Damascus. He says, "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks," (Acts 9:5).
"Kick against the pricks" is a phrase used multiple times in Greek plays, including in Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and The Bacchae by Euripides. In both cases it has to do with a mortal’s stubborn defiance. In The Bacchae, the mortal Pentheus has the god Dionysus bound, refusing to believe that he’s a god. Dionysus tells Pentheus, "Better to yield prayer and sacrifice than kick against the pricks…"
Does this reference mean that Jesus himself was anything like the god Dionysus? Of course not. It also does not indicate that Paul would suffer Pentheus’ fate of being torn apart by wild women Yet, the idiom would have instant meaning for Saul of Tarsus with his education in Greek literature. It would also have had meaning to those in the Greek culture to whom Paul told his conversion story.
Tripping Our Brothers:
What do we do today? Hunting Easter eggs hardly makes children think of Babylonian fertility goddesses, and there is nothing intrinsically evil in eggs or chocolate rabbits. At the same time, we do have knowledge of the Feasts of Israel, the original celebrations meant to point the way to Christ. How should we behave?
Here is what Paul says on the matter. "I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean," (Romans 14:14).
If you believe it is wrong to give your children Easter baskets, then it is wrong for you to do so. If, however, you are fully persuaded in your conscience that it’s harmless fun, then rejoice in your liberty. Paul says about these sorts of things, "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind," (Romans 14:5).
And yet, we have a responsibility to not cause our brothers to stumble. "But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock…" (1 Cor. 8:9, 11).
We should do nothing that could harm our fellow Christians or cause them to do something against their own consciences. We need to do everything we do with the heart of Christ, with love, and not out of pride or selfishness or judgmentalism. After all, the whole point of any Christian celebration is to bring glory to God. Let’s make sure every decision we make it focused on that goal. [And if we can enjoy some chocolate at the same time, then may God be glorified in that as well!]